APPLETON — Town leaders will spend nearly $7,000 for an analysis of Appleton’s rural gravel roads, with an eye to possible upgrades that might alleviate severe mud problems and could include paving.

The Select Board voted unanimously Dec. 6 to accept a work proposal from the James W. Sewall Company of Bangor. The engineering and consulting firm will analyze miles of unpaved roads and present cost estimates for maintenance and improvement. Care and upgrades are not part of the deal and would require further Select Board action and town expenditures.

“I think it’s a great way for us to be able to get a baseline of our gravel roads…and an engineering report on what could be improved…whether it be remaining gravel, switching to pavement or whatever the case might be,” Select Board Chair Lorie Costigan said during a discussion of the proposal on Nov. 29, a week before the vote.

In all, six roadways totaling more than an estimated 10 miles in gravel road surface will be inspected and the subject of recommendations. With about 19 miles of gravel roads in the town, the Sewell contract will cover roughly half of it, Appleton Road Commissioner Jake Boyington told the Camden Herald.

Targeted are Appleton Ridge, Peabody, Magog, Jones Hill, Collinstown and Guini Ridge roads.

Sewall will create “tiered options” for repairs and upgrades ranging from “most minimal to full reconstruction,” according to its proposal. Recommended repairs could include new culverts, tree clearing, excavation and new gravel and paving, the document states.

Boyington indicated why attention to gravel roads is crucial, in comments in the town’s 2021-2022 Annual Report.

 

The Appleton Select Board voted unanimously to study about half the town’s gravel roads. Photo by Jack M. Foley

“Our gravel roads have been the source of much aggravation for those of us that need to use them during mud season,” he wrote. “Last year we saw one of the longest and worst mud seasons that many of us remember. However, out of that I believe the hundreds of yards of gravel and stone that we put in our roads to mitigate those conditions has improved some of the chronic troubled areas.”

Roads are a big expense for Appleton. The same annual report shows that for all road work, including maintenance, paving and improvements, the town spent about $635,670 in fiscal year 2020-2021. Of that, about 42 percent, or $264,500, was for winter care that included nearly $190,000 for sanding and plowing contracts. Unclear in the report is how much was spent specifically on gravel roads.

It was right after the awful mud winter Boyington referenced that the Sewell proposal arrived at the town office, then languished without action for more than six months. It had been submitted in April 2022, with a 60-day deadline for acceptance as written — including the $6,820 price tag. The proposal, solicited by town officials, was dated April 1, nine working days after Appleton leaders met on March 18 with Sewall personnel to discuss town needs.

The original Sewall proposal called for the fieldwork to be performed in early April of this year and the firm’s report on costs and recommended action was to be delivered in June. No town action was taken on the April proposal within 60 days.

Just over six months later, that same Sewell proposal resurfaced at the Select Board’s Nov. 29 meeting when Costigan handed copies to the board. She attributed the delay in responding to Sewell to distractions caused by the town’s dealings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on reimbursements for storm damage. She told colleagues that Sewell would honor the agreement until the end of the year and recommended it be accepted. She later told the Camden Herald that information came from the firm.

“We are under a little bit of a time crunch if we want to reach out to them before the end of this year, which I would suggest we do,” Costigan said in asking her colleagues to study the document and be prepared to vote on it Dec. 6.

Board Vice Chair Peter Beckett wondered whether an outside firm was really needed. “It’s a little bit fuzzy as to what we are going to get out of this that we don’t get out of Jake actually, besides getting an actual list by road as to what needs to be done,” he said, referring to Boyington.

Boyington, who attended the meeting, agreed, but also pointed out benefits of the cost and an outside opinion. “I don’t think they are going to tell us much that we really can’t do ourselves. However, it does seem like a fairly reasonable price to get an independent look at it,” he said.

He suggested residents might benefit from hearing other views on gravel road issues so that “it’s not just me thinking that a certain method might be the way to fix it, or maybe my method could be tweaked a little bit and there’d be a better result,” he offered.

An outside examination of the roads could provide a “mile-marker for improvement; a this-is-where-we-are-at and this-is-where-we-need-to-be,” look at things, Boyington said.

On Dec. 13, Costigan told the Camden Herald that she been in touch with the firm again and that Sewell will honor the agreement, including the price, into the spring of 2023. That is when they now propose to do the work in order to avoid having to deal with frozen ground issues, she said. Appleton will pay for the Sewall work with part of its federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.

At Sewell, Senior Transportation Engineer Lynn Frazier confirmed that all aspects of the April proposal will be honored into the spring of 2023.

Waiting until then works best because it provides engineers the opportunity to study how frost and runoff impact the gravel roads, Frazier said.

Even if Sewell had done all its investigation and made its recommendations earlier this year as initially proposed, it probably would not have resulted in any actual road work being done yet because repairs and upgrades take planning and time, she said.

Moving forward, however, town officials “will have some decisions to make once we give them the information” about road conditions, lifecycle costs and recommended action, Frazier said.